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Research That Really Counts

Elizabeth Lucas '06 with her niece.
Elizabeth Lucas '06 with her niece. Lucas, a psychological and brain sciences major, is conducting research with young children to identify when and how they learn to count. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Lucas '06)

Betsy Lucas '06 may work with very small children and very small numbers, but she's getting big results from her recent study on when and how preschoolers learn to count. Lucas spent the last year and a half working for Assistant Professor of Education Daniel Ansari, first as a Presidential Scholar and then through the Center for Cognitive and Educational Neuroscience (CCEN). The CCEN, funded by a five-year, $21.8-million grant from the National Science Foundation, supports educational research and community outreach to teachers. Together, Lucas and Ansari hope to further the understanding of how young children develop numerical cognition-in other words, when do they learn to count?

Lucas is trying to identify what cognitive abilities are needed for counting and for understanding the "cardinality principle," the ability to associate the counting words with a fixed number of objects. She has conducted experiments with children between the ages of two and four at day care centers around the Upper Valley (including the Dartmouth College Child Care Center). So far, she has collected data on 37 children and hopes to work with another 25 before the study is completed.

To collect the information, Lucas was required to work with very young children, and her teacher and mentor Ansari describes her rapport with the toddlers as a skill that sets her apart. "Betsy can understand children, and where some researchers tend to push too hard, Betsy doesn't. When she goes into a day care center to work with children, I know I can rely on her." Lucas explained that for her study, she asked her young subjects to collect or identify a certain number of objects, for example, asking them to bring four plastic dinosaurs to a stuffed bunny. She then had them perform tasks involving "subitizing," which is the ability to quantify a small number of objects without counting, and large number comparisons, in which they were asked to pick the larger of two groups of dots without counting.

Although the work is still in progress, Lucas already has findings that she presented during the Homecoming weekend undergraduate poster session. She said she was surprised to find that children's ability to count was more closely correlated with the ability to subitize than with the ability to make large number comparisons. Lucas is working with Ansari to polish her findings for a paper to be submitted for publication in early 2006.

Lucas' work with Ansari presented an opportunity for her as an undergraduate to develop graduate-level science writing and analysis skills. Ansari says that, for him, there was a dual reward in both watching the development of her skills as a scientist and his own skills as a mentor.

By GENEVIEVE HAAS

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Last Updated: 5/30/08